Tags: Russia | putin | election | Lukashenko | belarus

Putin Waits for Volatile Ally to Play Into His Hands at Election

Putin Waits for Volatile Ally to Play Into His Hands at Election

Friday, 07 August 2020 06:03 AM

Facing an unprecedented challenge as he bids to win a sixth term as president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko has resorted to lashing out at Russia to try to rally public support going into Sunday’s election. Vladimir Putin may not let him savor victory for long.

Having angered Russia by resisting demands for deeper political and economic integration, Lukashenko further inflamed tensions last week with claims of a coup plot after 33 alleged Russian mercenaries were detained near the capital, Minsk.

“The elections are a sign that Lukashenko’s starting to lose his grip,” said Andrey Kortunov, director of the Kremlin-founded Russian International Affairs Council. “With a weak partner in Minsk, Moscow has a good hand to play. But there are risks too as he’s becoming increasingly unpredictable.”

The 65-year-old former collective farm boss has ruled the ex-Soviet republic of 9.4 million for 26 years. Lukashenko’s election victory seemed a formality until opposition groups united behind Svetlana Tikhanovskaya after their own leaders were jailed or kept off the ballot. Tikhanovskaya, who only ran after her husband Sergei, a political blogger, was detained and barred from the race, has drawn huge crowds at rallies nationwide.

The strategically important nation sandwiched between Russia and the NATO states of Poland, Lithuania and Latvia has long been Moscow’s most loyal ally. But as relations strained over the Kremlin’s demands for closer union, Lukashenko sought to woo the European Union and the U.S., culminating in a visit to Minsk by Secretary of State Michael Pompeo in February.

Russia will use the opportunity to pull Lukashenko closer into its orbit after the election, according to three people familiar with Kremlin thinking on Belarus. In a sign of preparations for the outcome, Russian state TV has downplayed the opposition’s appeal and emphasized Lukashenko’s popular support.

That narrative may be harder to sustain after Tikhanovskaya gathered a 60,000-strong crowd in Minsk last week. Since then, the authorities have thrown obstacles in the way of other opposition rallies, prompting her to cancel several events, fearing provocations.

The opposition challenger, a stay-at-home mother until she entered the race, says her only goal is to organize a democratic power transition by holding new presidential elections within six months.

After riot police beat protesters and opposition candidates were jailed following 2010 elections, the EU imposed sanctions against Lukashenko’s regime. A harsh response this time risks leaving him a pariah with the West.

“A new round of isolation by the West will leave Minsk face to face with Moscow” and its plans for the “incorporation of Belarus,” said Arseny Sivitsky, director of the Centre for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies in the Belarusian capital.

Lukashenko has seen his popularity slide domestically amid economic stagnation and his refusal to take decisive measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus. Unlike in previous campaigns, protests have spread from Minsk to other cities and towns, including some with no history of public opposition to him.

Lukashenko vowed the “toughest possible” response to any post-election protests when he addressed the nation Tuesday in a televised speech before a 2,500-strong audience of officials.

“Any crackdown would harm the relationship with the West, which is exactly what Russia wants,” said Brian Whitmore, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for European Policy Analysis. “This is clearly the toughest election Lukashenko has ever faced, it’s turning into a nightmare for him.”

In his speech, Lukashenko resumed criticism of Russia, which is formally Belarus’s closest ally under a 1999 “Union State” deal. He lamented Russia scaling down bilateral relations from “brotherly” to “partnership” and said Belarus would now also develop strategic ties with the U.S., China and other countries.

He spoke after Belarus detained the Russian private military contractors it accused of working for the Wagner group controlled by an ally of President Putin last week. It suspected them of plotting to destabilize the country, including through staging terrorist acts.

In a phone call Wednesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy asked Lukashenko to extradite those among the 33 detainees who allegedly took part in a Russia-backed uprising in the east of Ukraine.

Russia was shocked by Lukashenko’s attacks, but he’ll have no choice but to return to the negotiating table, according to Fyodor Lukyanov, head of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, a research group that advises the Kremlin.

“It’s clear his omnipotence and self-confidence is ebbing,” said Lukyanov.

The U.S. and its allies can do little except stress to Belarus “that any violence, any major crackdown after the election, would be unacceptable,” said Joerg Forbrig, director for Central and Eastern Europe at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “There is a clear intention on Moscow’s part to speed up integration.”

© Copyright 2020 Bloomberg News. All rights reserved.


   
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Facing an unprecedented challenge as he bids to win a sixth term as president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko has resorted to lashing out at Russia to try to rally public support going into Sunday's election. Vladimir Putin may not let him savor victory for long.Having...
putin, election, Lukashenko, belarus
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2020-03-07
Friday, 07 August 2020 06:03 AM
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